Clean Doesn't Always Mean Lean

Mark Graban went on quite a rant the other day at the LeanBlog - cutting up the inspector that was involved with the salmonella outbreaks at the Peanut Corporation of America. This is one story that means a lot to me - I LOVE peanut butter. Well that fact explains why I read the news story linked to Mark's blog post - I wanted to know how this company defiled my second true love!

Mark admirably picked apart all of the problems with the private sector inspection process. We can only assume that the FDA inspection equals the level of the private sector inspection - but at eight times the cost. (Side note: that fact doesn't inspire me to want to go out and sign up for universal healthcare right at this moment!)

Regarding the poisoning of our food, my intuition tells me that it is a rare occasion that these outbreaks occur - and statistically it affects a very small fraction of the population - in this case 0.008% of the U.S. population. That statistic is not exactly heartwarming to the families of nine people who died or encouraging to the 22,500 who were sickened. Regardless, it helps us understand the concept of risk, no?

How could the inspector have missed this? There are many reasons. Mark covered many of them, mostly procedural and bureaucratic or just simply can be written off to laziness or apathy.

There is one quote however that jumped off the page at me:

"Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. The rigor of audits varies widely and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the Food and Drug Administration spends to inspect a plant. Typically, the private auditors inspect only manufacturing plants, not the suppliers that feed ingredients to those facilities. Nor do they commonly test the actual food products for pathogens, even though gleaming production lines can turn out poisoned fare. "

O.k., let me get this straight:

  1. Audits are not required by the FDA,

  2. Consumer safety is seen as important,

  3. Liability, or the cost of reputation, is also important,

  4. We don't want to spend a lot of money on auditing,

  5. We go with the lowest bidder,

  6. We also know that "gleaming production lines can turn out poisoned fare."
Wow, this last point is not only a little scary but most important in making my point. It implies that we are either lulled into complacency by first impressions, we can't see problems through the high gloss of appearance, or we are not looking for problems in the first place. Even the cleanest, best looking operation in the world can turn out scrap. That doesn't sound possible, but we all know it is true. We cannot let first impressions deceive us - we have to go to the genba and understand if the process capability and resulting quality will reconcile with our impressions.

This is a core skill for lean businesses - and one that we cannot delegate to outsiders. The outsiders should be helping us get better at our own self-assessment. This is why we must encourage people to look for, embrace and figure out solutions to problems. In fact, since we are already paying people, it is cheaper to have them do their own diagnostic assessment of the operation. And, if we ask them, often they will tell us the problems they have known about for years and even have solutions for them! Imagine that! We can blame the auditor, but that doesn't solve the problem. We first have to look at ourselves as managers for not developing a culture that embraces problem identification before the problem turns into a consumer safety issue.

By the way, Teddie Peanut Butter is the best!

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